Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Fossil Falls

The massive potholes of Fossil Falls
0.6 miles round trip, 50 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Decent gravel road to trailhead, no fee required

Fossil Falls is an oft-overlooked geological oddity in California's Owens Valley, a landscape of a water-scoured basalt slot canyon where the Sierra Nevada meets the Mojave Desert. The name may initially seem a bit misleading, as there are neither fossils nor a waterfall here. Instead, Fossil Falls is a canyon created by an ancient waterfall on the Owens River during previous Ice Ages. The hike to reach the rim of Fossil Falls is very short, but Fossil Falls itself provides a plethora of options for exploration and rock scrambling. Visitors who feel comfortable with rock scrambling can descend into the canyon of Fossil Falls for an intimate look at the potholes and petroglyphs that mark the columnar basalt walls of this ancient waterfall.

I visited Fossil Falls during a November road trip to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra. The site is far from major metropolitan areas, the closest being Los Angeles, 3 hours to the south. If you're not local, it doesn't make too much sense to travel all this way just for Fossil Falls, but if you're passing by US 395 to points north in the Eastern Sierra or if you're in Ridgecrest, Fossil Falls makes a nice short detour. I reached Fossil Falls from Ridgecrest, following CA Highway 178 west and then US 395 north from town. I took US 395 north for 25 miles and then turned right onto Cinder Road shortly after passing Little Lake. I followed Cinder Road- a rocky gravel road- a mile east and then turned right at a junction for the Fossil Falls BLM site; I then followed this gravel road for a mile past the Fossil Falls campground to a small parking area for the Fossil Falls site. There was a pit toilet and enough room for about 15 cars.

From the southeast corner of the parking lot, a quarter mile trail led across a rocky and flat desert landscape to reach Fossil Falls. The Mojave Desert was quite open here, which meant that I had great views of the surrounding mountains around Owens Valley: the Sierra Nevada rose to the west, the colorful cinder cone Red Hill was just north, and the Coso Range lay to the east. Arriving at Fossil Falls, two paths branched out to visit the rim along either side of the canyon; it's worth checking out both sides.

The head of the canyon looks like a collection of basalt hoodoos from the top. The basalt that forms the canyon and that lies under the surface of the valley here is a result of eruptions from the Coso Volcanic Field, of which both Red Hill and the Coso Range are a part. This is a very geologically active spot: volcanic eruptions built the Coso Range and remnant geothermal energy still feed numerous hot springs in the area. Unfortunately, most of these geothermal features and most of the Coso Range itself are within the boundaries of the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Center, meaning that they're off-limits to the public. However, the geothermal energy here does power a series of geothermal power plants on the military property that together constitute the third largest geothermal energy project in California after projects at the Geysers near Santa Rosa and at the Salton Sea.

At Fossil Falls, cooling lava flows hardened and shrank into basalt, forming vertical columns with geometrical shapes. This basalt covered the floor of Owens Valley here. In previous Ice Ages, the Basin and Range and the Mojave Desert were able to support large lakes due to the increased snowfall in the region. Both Owens Lake and China Lake were true lakes at that time; Owens Lake eventually expanded to the point that it overspilled its current endorheic basin, sending an ancient Owens River flowing south through the gap between the Sierra Nevada and the Cosos. At the current site of Fossil Falls, the ancient Owens River plunged over a basalt ledge on its path to China Lake. The river gradually eroded out a narrow slot canyon into the basalt: the top of Fossil Falls is the point where the river plunged down into its canyon. As the climate warmed around 10,000 years ago, the lakes dried up and the Owens River stopped flowing; today, we're left with the scars that the river left on this landscape.

One of the most interesting features left by the flowing water are the deep, round potholes scoured out by the Owens River. Formed when rushing water agitated small rocks stuck in imperfections in the rock, some of the potholes were spherical holes in the rock just a foot or two wide while others were cylindrical, over 5 feet wide, and cut over 20 feet into the basalt. 

Fossil Falls and the Sierra Nevada
Red Hill and the eroded basalt of Fossil Falls
The canyon itself was very narrow with steep walls due to the columnar nature of the basalt: basalt is very hard and resistant to erosion but rushing water was able to remove entire columns to leave vertical walls. Visitors from the Pacific Northwest may see echoes of the Grand Coulee's Dry Falls here, as both were formed by similar processes; Dry Falls, however, was a far larger waterfall in its heyday.

Fossil Falls
Many visitors will find it sufficient to see Fossil Falls from above, which makes for a short and easy hike. However, those who wish to do so can descend into the canyon for some additional exploration. Entering the canyon requires rock scrambling and makes this hike substantially more difficult; understand during your descent that you'll have to ascend anything you drop down and also that the smooth basalt surfaces are quite slippery. I chose to enter the upper portion of the canyon but turned around at a major dry fall. Use your judgement to avoid putting yourself in a dangerous situation.

The exquisitely eroded walls of Fossil Falls
Being inside the canyon gave me a greater appreciation of the canyon's sculpted walls. Fossil Falls felt like an odd cross between the slot canyons of Utah and the coulees of Washington State's Columbia Plateau. Here were dark, gleaming basalt walls that reminded me of the coulees; but here were also beautifully sculpted curves in the rock that wouldn't have been out of place at Antelope Canyon.

Descending into the canyon
Inside the slot canyon at Fossil Falls
I spotted one petroglyph on the eastern walls of the canyon: the rock carving had the form of an antelope or perhaps a bighorn sheep. The Coso People lived in the area around Fossil Falls and the Coso Range for perhaps around 10,000 years; the Northern Paiute who lived in Owens Valley when European Americans began settling the area in the late 19th century may have been related to the Coso People. While much is unknown about the Cosos, they left an indelible mark on this landscape in the form of hundreds of thousands of petroglyphs. The densest collection of Coso petroglyphs are in the Coso Range itself at Little Petroglyph Canyon, where the basalt walls of canyon are decorated with countless figures of humans and sheep. Little Petroglyph Canyon is one of the most archaeologically significant sites in the United States and is one of the largest known collections of petroglyphs in the country. However, access is limited because it lies on the China Lake naval base; visitors who wish to see it can sign up for guided weekend tours from Ridgecrest's Maturango Museum after passing a background check. 

Petroglpyh on the walls of Fossil Falls
While it's easy to blow by Fossil Falls on your way up or down US-395, this is a worthy stop where the Sierra Nevada meets the Mojave if you have a half hour or hour to spare.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Mobius Arch

Lone Pine Peak and Mount Whitney through Mobius Arch
0.7 miles loop, 100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, no fee required

Hidden in the heart of the rocky Alabama Hills of California's Owens Valley, Mobius Arch is a small, sinewy rock arch that perfectly frames the highest peak in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney. This short hike visits Mobius Arch and many of the other interesting rock formations of the Alabama Hills and delivers stunning views of the Sierra Nevada's mighty eastern front. You'll actually get three arches for the price of one hike, although neither Lathe Arch nor Heart Arch are anywhere as impressive as Mobius Arch. Sunrises are particularly beautiful here: the day's first sunlight falls on the high peaks of the Sierra, bathing the white granite of Lone Pine Peak, Mount Whitney, and Mount Williamson in an unearthly pink alpenglow. This hike provides the most bang for your buck in the Alabama Hills and is a good option for all visitors traveling through this corner of the Eastern Sierra.

Mobius Arch is another of the many places that have blown up on social media and become tourist magnets. I first visited Mobius Arch in 2007 during a family trip to the Eastern Sierra with my parents. I hiked out to the arch twice during that trip- once on a nice summer afternoon and again for sunrise the next morning- and I did not see any other hikers here either time. During my most recent visit, on a cold November morning, there were two other hikers vying for space to photograph the sunrise here and there were more groups of hikers hitting the trail by the time I returned to the trailhead. 

I hiked Mobius Arch during a November trip to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra. The Alabama Hills are a long way from any large city- Vegas and LA are both 4 hours away- but they're right outside the town of Lone Pine, which has most basic services and is the third largest town in the region after Bishop and Mammoth Lakes. From Lone Pine, I was able to reach the Mobius Arch trailhead in less than 10 minutes: I took the Whitney Portal Road uphill from town for 3 miles and then turned right onto Movie Road. Movie Road led into the Alabama Hills; initially paved, it transitioned to a good gravel road. After following Movie Road for 1.5 miles, the road made a sharp turn to the right; I pulled into the gravel parking area on the left immediately after the turn, which was the trailhead for the Mobius Arch Loop. If you're looking for a place to camp near Lone Pine, the Alabama Hills are a popular spot for dispersed camping: this is Bureau of Land Management land, so you can camp more or less anywhere in the hills. 

The Mobius Arch Trail is a short loop; from the parking lot, both ends of the loop require descending down the bordering wash and then climbing up the other side. Hiking the loop clockwise puts you at the arch faster, but the arch itself is easier to spot when heading counterclockwise. I'll described my clockwise hike to see sunrise at this arch.

I took the trail leaving to the left side of the trailhead parking area. The trail dropped briefly, quickly reaching the bottom of a wash. Crossing the wash, I found two trails heading north: the trail on the left was the Alabama Hills Trail, while the right fork was the Arch Loop Trail. I took the right fork, which headed across open sagebrush flats for about 250 meters. Dawn lighting faintly illuminated the pale granite of the Sierra Nevada to the west: here rose the highest peaks of the range, including the very highest point in the contiguous United States. The Inyo Mountains rose to east, with the brightness emerging behind the range promising the warmth and light of the coming day. The jumbled boulders and low, rocky peaks of the Alabama Hills stretched out in all directions around the trail.

Sunrise over the Alabama Hills
At just under a quarter of a mile, the trail turned to the right and began to descend as it entered a collection of the eroded boulders of the Alabama Hills. Here, in quick succession, the trail came to Lathe Arch and then Mobius Arch. Lathe Arch can be quite hard to spot: it is only just over a foot tall and is well below the level of the trail; look for a narrow slot in the rock to the right of the trail where you can descend and get a better view of the arch.

Lathe Arch
Immediately beyond Lathe Arch, I came to Mobius Arch on the right side of the trail. The arch may not be obvious if you're hiking the trail clockwise; be sure to look to the right behind your shoulder to see if you spot the arch. A short scramble up a rock gave me an excellent view through this sizeable arch to Lone Pine Peak and Mount Whitney, which were being illuminated by the day's first rays. Space here can be quite limited if there are many visitors; there's really just a single point from which to capture the iconic shot of the arch framing the high peaks of the Sierras. The arch is so named for its resemblance to the twisting, one-sided Mobius Loop.

Sunrise on Lone Pine Peak and Whitney through Mobius Arch
From Mobius Arch, there were also great views along the eastern front of the Sierra Nevada. Mount Whitney and Lone Pine Peak were of course the dominant peaks of the view, rising sharply to the east. Mount Whitney is the tallest point in the contiguous United States, although it just barely edges out the high peaks of the Colorado Rockies and Washington State's Mount Rainier. Lone Pine Peak was a great pyramidal peak to the south of Mount Whitney; even though it may look as tall from this angle, it is actually over 1500 feet lower, seeming particularly high mainly just because of its proximity to the Alabama Hills. Mount Langley was a high peak to the left of Lone Pine Peak; it is the southernmost peak over 14000 feet in both the Sierra Nevada and in the entire United States. One of the highest peaks to the north was Mount Williamson, the second highest point in the Sierra Nevada and California and an especially prominent peak as it rises directly from Owens Valley rather than being set back like Whitney and Langley.

Alpenglow on Mount Whitney
Views to the north extended into the heart of the Alabama Hills. The Alabama Hills were named by Confederate sympathizers living in Owens Valley during the Civil War, who named the valley after the battleship CSS Alabama. Pro-Unionists in Owens Valley responded by naming a mine and a pass to the north after the USS Kearsarge, which sank the Alabama in battle off the coast of France. The Alabama Hills- this set of low but rocky peaks in the middle of Owens Valley- are a quintessential Western landscape, perhaps because the area was used for filming many Hollywood Westerns. Besides playing a starring role in many John Wayne films, the Alabama Hills has also provided backdrops for Gunga Din, Ironman, The Lone Ranger, and Django Unchained.

Alabama Hills
Leaving Mobius Arch, I continued clockwise around the loop. The trail passed through another wash and then climbed onto another flat sagebrush plain with good views of the rock piles and spires of the Alabama Hills to the north. At just over two-fifths of a mile, I came to a trail junction: here, the Arch Loop Trail split off to the right while the Alabama Hills Trail continued ahead. I took the right fork to stay on the Arch Loop Trail. From the junction, there was a nice view of Heart Arch nearby; this arch was small and high up on one of the rock pillars above the trail. I followed the Arch Loop Trail downhill through a cluster of rocks with many eroded holes and crossed a wash to return to the parking area.

Heart Arch
This is a short but enjoyable hike visiting a small but very photogenic arch. The views of the the Sierra Nevada and the weird rocks of the Alabama Hills are both excellent. I do recommend this hike, especially in the excellent lighting of early morning, but you'll want to come sooner rather than later as this hike becomes increasingly popular.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Mount Perry

Badwater and the Panamints from Dante's View Peak
9 miles round trip, 2000 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead (no trailers), Death Valley National Park entrance fee required

The hike along the crest of the Black Mountains to Mount Perry delivers stellar views of California's Death Valley National Park, packing in overlooks of the lowest point of the North American continent alongside views of the stunning colors of the Amargosa Range. The hike follows an informal but still fairly obvious trail the entire way from Dante's View, offering a hike with stunning views every step of the way. While I wouldn't rate this hike as highly as Telescope Peak across the valley, the great views, relative quiet, and proximity to Las Vegas still make this an excellent hike. The hike also visits the summit of Dante's View Peak en route, providing a shorter alternative for visitors looking for a brief outing.

The Black Mountains are extremely hot in summer; temperatures here are only slightly less roasting than the 130 degree Fahrenheit records that have been set in Death Valley below. The hike is probably best done from mid-fall to mid-spring, when temperatures are reasonable. Regardless of the time of year that you hike here, make sure you bring plenty of water. Many descents and ascents and a good deal of rock scrambling en route to Mount Perry make this a slightly more challenging hike. The rock scrambling and general roughness of the trail in the last half mile will slow you down, so be sure to budget a bit more time for this hike than you might for a typical moderate 9-mile hike. As the trail is not an official Death Valley National Park hike and is thus not marked, be sure you do your research before you come to know where you're going.

I hiked Mount Perry during a November trip to Death Valley. The trailhead for Mount Perry is about a two-hour drive from the Las Vegas metro area, making this a doable day trip for hikers coming from Vegas. It's about a half hour drive from Furnace Creek, the center of visitor services in Death Valley. From Furnace Creek, I reached the trailhead at Dante's View by following California State Route 190 east and uphill for 12 miles and then turning right at the signed junction for Dante's View. I then followed this paved road 13 miles uphill to the trailhead at Dante's View. The last quarter mile of the road was extremely steep and curvy and was not suitable for trailers. I parked at the large ridgetop parking lot for Dante's View, where many other tourists had driven up for the remarkable Death Valley views.

I started out enjoying the panorama of Badwater and Telescope Peak from the developed viewpoint at Dante's View before I followed the path leading north from the parking lot along the crest of the Black Mountains to start my hike. The unmarked trail left the road where the road made a switchback; from here, the trail began a steady ascent and quickly came to a fork. I took a left at this unsigned fork to begin my ascent towards Dante's View Peak (not to be mistaken with the drive-up viewpoint) along the Death Valley side of the peak. On the largely barren slopes of the Black Mountains, I had constant views of Death Valley below.

Badwater and the Panamint Range from the trail up to Dante's View Peak
The trail ascended just over 200 feet in a third of a mile as it climbed from the trailhead up to the summit of Dante's View Peak. Just ten minutes into the hike, I had reached one of the two amazing viewpoints of this hike. From the summit of Dante's View Peak, there was a view directly down to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at over 280 feet below sea level. Badwater was just over 2 miles away from where I stood as the crow flies, but it was more than a mile below me. The desert flats spread to both the north and the south; to the north, Death Valley extended past Furnace Creek to the sand dunes out by Stovepipe Wells, with the Grapevine Mountains defining the valley's eastern boundary. Closer in, Mount Perry rose a few miles to the north, its slopes exploding with a myriad of browns, reds, and yellows. Charleston Peak and the Spring Mountains near Las Vegas rose to the east across the Greenwater Valley and the Greenwater Mountains. This was a spectacular and unearthly view- one that George Lucas incorporated into his vision of the desert planet Tatooine in the first Star Wars movie.

Looking back down Dante's View Peak into the depths of Death Valley
Mount Perry and Death Valley from Dante's View Peak
Hikers who are just looking for a brief excursion can turn around at Dante's View Peak for a 2/3 mile round trip hike, but hikers who budgeted the day to reach Mount Perry can enjoy many more miles of views. Leaving the summit of Dante's View Peak, the trail descended to the northeast along the crest of the Black Mountains. The trail went through a couple of descent phases, each of which was quite steep and was punctuated by a period of flat ridge walking. While descending along the ridge, I passed by a small rock arch on the west side of the ridge that served as a nice window for looking out over Death Valley. 

Rock arch just north of Dante's View Peak
The views remained excellent through this descent, with many great views of the Panamint Range rising over Death Valley. Across the valley, Telescope Peak is the tallest point in the Panamint Range at 11,043 feet above sea level; it rises directly from Badwater Basin at the bottom of Death Valley. The elevation differential between the summit of Telescope Peak and Badwater is over 11,300 feet, which is spread out over just a few miles; this is one of the most impressive elevation differentials in the United States.

Telescope Peak and Badwater
The trail dropped about 600 feet in elevation over the course of a mile of hiking after leaving Dante View's Peak. As the trail headed northeast from Dante View's Peak, the best views of Death Valley began to fade a bit and instead I was treated to nice easterly views of the flat Greenwater Valley, a desert basin dotted with creosote. The Greenwater Mountains rose on the other side of the valley and beyond that lay the great flat expanse of Amargosa Valley, which in turn ended at the foot of snowy Charleston Peak, which is just outside the Vegas suburbs.

Mount Charleston and Greenwater Valley
The trail flattened out after reaching a low saddle a mile northeast of Dante's View Peak. Over the next 1.3 miles, the trail crossed over rolling terrain along the ridgeline of the Black Mountains, wrapping around some small bumps along the ridge while going up and over others. There were more decent views of the Greenwater Valley and Death Valley were and the multihued bands of the Funeral Mountains were a constant part of the view to the north.

Funeral Mountains
As I noted initially, this is not an official trail: this meant that at points, the trail was not marked well or maintained perfectly, although you will be able to follow the trail as long as you're attentive and even if you do lose the trail you can simply follow the top of the ridge. At points, the trail was quite rocky, making the hiking a bit unpleasant and slowing progress. Excellent views of Greenwater Valley's perfectly flat floor to the east helped compensate.

Greenwater Valley
At 2.7 miles from the trailhead, the trail began a longer descent, dropping about 250 feet in a quarter of a mile to the saddle that marked the lowest point on the hike. From the saddle at the 3 mile point of the hike, Mount Perry rose directly ahead, its slopes a mixture of red, brown, orange, and yellows. It was a very striking peak. 

Colorful Mount Perry
From the saddle, the trail climbed 650 feet over the next mile as it followed the ridge to a false summit that marked Mount Perry's southernmost peak. The trail became a bit hard to follow at times and was frequently very rocky, with segments that may require some mild rock scrambling. The pace of the ascent was uneven, with a few stretches of steeper ascent along the rocky ridge. After crossing a talus slope, I arrived at the top of the false summit, 4 miles from the trailhead. The trail had become quite challenging by this point: the one other hiker that I saw this far out decided to turn around here. 

View to the summit along the ridgeline from the first false summit
The final half mile to the summit followed a sometimes knife-edge ridge with a few ups and downs that totaled about another 200 feet of elevation gain; however, the terrain was not substantially more challenging than what I encountered on the way to the false summit and the colorful northerly views from the summit made tackling this final stretch worth it. There was a bit more rock scrambling as I followed the ridge and I enjoyed the sweeping southerly views of the Black Mountains and Dante's View Peak as I approached Mount Perry's true summit.

Dante's View Peak along the spine of the Black Mountains
Finally, 4.5 miles from the trailhead, I arrived at the flat plateau that makes up Mount Perry's true summit. There is no sharp single point on this peak from which to enjoy a 360-degree panorama, but I was able to get views in all directions by walking about the peak's level top. The most unique and enjoyable part of the view from the summit was of the colorful Black Mountains to the north. Multihued layers of rock painted beautiful bands on the mountains that otherwise sported a deep, rich brown hue. This northernmost part of the Black Mountains is well-known for its remarkable colors: Artists Palette and Golden Canyon, two of the park's most famous attractions, lie in this part of the range.

Colorful Black Mountains and Death Valley from Mount Perry
The views of Death Valley and Telescope Peak were excellent from here as well. Badwater Basin, which consisted of a white-colored salt flat and the more grey-colored Devil's Golf Course, filled the valley between here and the Panamints. Badwater is the floor of the lowest of the many basins that make up North America's Great Basin, a collection of endorheic watersheds covering most of the Basin and Range physiographic region between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. 

Telescope Peak towers over Badwater and the Devil's Golf Course
I stayed at the summit a while to enjoy the great views of the colorful surroundings. The Black Mountains, the Funeral Mountains, and the floor of Death Valley all contributed unique and stark colors to this incredible natural palette landscape. From this spot, I even spotted the Ryan boron mine off national park land to the northeast.

Colors of the Amargosa Range
This was an enjoyable ridgeline hike that was a bit on the harder side of moderate due to the heat, lack of official maintenance, and rock scrambling. I did not see too many hikers on the latter parts of the hike even though I visited on a Saturday in November; there were a good number of hikers headed to Dante's View Peak but I saw just a single other hiker on the last 2.5 miles of the trail. This is an enjoyable hike for day visitors from Vegas or those who want to explore the Black Mountains; however, the ultimate peak hike in Death Valley is still Telescope Peak across the valley.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Telescope Peak

View of the Panamint Range from Telescope Peak
12.5 miles round trip, 3200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous
Access: Rough dirt road to trailhead, Death Valley National Park entrance fee required

11,043-foot tall Telescope Peak in California's Death Valley National Park is one of the most remarkable viewpoints in the United States: from its summit, one can simultaneously gaze down to Badwater, the lowest point in the country at 281 feet below sea level, and over to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States at 14,494 feet above sea level. The fairly challenging trail that accesses the highest point of the national park with America's lowest point is packed with hundred-mile views the entire way. A chance to see some Great Basin bristlecone pines en route to the summit make this a truly great hike- one of my favorite. While seeing the depths and flats of Death Valley are the park's main attraction, this hike to the loftiest summit of the Panamint Range is not to be missed.

The high slopes of Telescope Peak are a good deal cooler than Furnace Creek and other spots along the floor of Death Valley. In the summer, this means that the peak is a good respite from the heat; in winter, it can mean snow even when Badwater is a toasty 80 degrees. In summer, hikers may find nice wildflowers in Arcane Meadows and along the Panamint crest. Visibility is usually a little better fall through spring, especially as wildfire haze and air pollution from cities can often obscure the peak's hundred mile views in summer. In winter months, the trailhead at Mahogany Flat can be inaccessible due to snow, forcing hikers to start at the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns instead, adding 3 miles round trip and an additional thousand feet of elevation gain to the hike. This is a serious hike in a dry, hot, and high elevation place, so come prepared. Bring plenty of water and be on the lookout for altitude sickness, especially if you're hiking here after staying overnight below sea level. In winter, microspikes and poles or even crampons and an ice axe may be necessary in snowy and icy conditions.

I did this hike during a November trip to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra, shortly after the first snowstorm of the season. The hike is a long drive from either Los Angeles or Las Vegas; in winter months, most hikers will find that the hike takes almost all of daylight hours, so it's best to stay nearby. Camping near Wildrose or elsewhere in the Panamints can help with acclimatization but can be very cold in winter. From Furnace Creek, the center of visitor services in Death Valley, you can reach the Telescope Peak trailhead by following Highway 190 northwest past Stovepipe Wells to the Emigrant Campground. Just after passing the Emigrant Campground, turn left onto the Emigrant Canyon Road and follow the paved road 18 miles across a pass and down into the head of Wildrose Canyon. At the intersection with the Wildrose Road, I continued straight, passing the Wildrose Campground. The road continued uphill 8 miles from the Wildrose Campground to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns; the road was initially paved but soon transitioned to a good and wide gravel road all the way up to the charcoal kilns. Hikers arriving from Ridgecrest and Highway 178 can reach the trailhead via the Wildrose Road, which is bumpy but a manageable drive for any reasonable car.

Past the charcoal kilns, a sign indicated that a high clearance 4WD vehicle was recommended for the road ahead to Mahogany Flat. The road narrowed and became rocky, bumpy, and steep, with significant potholes in spots. I was largely able to manage this road in my standard clearance 2WD vehicle but was unfortunately forced to turn around at the switchback just short of the Mahogany Flat Campground due to snow and ice on the road. Without snow, my 2WD sedan would've been able to handle this road, although the road is certainly quite rough so you should make sure you're comfortable with driving difficult roads before attempting it. There is a parking area for about a half dozen cars at the entrance to the Mahogany Flat campground for hikers. There is an entrance fee for Death Valley National Park but visitors arriving from the west may not pass a fee collection site on their way to the trailhead.

Having failed to drive all the way to the trailhead at Mahogany Flat, I returned to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns to start my hike there. This made for a long day hike of 15.5 miles with 4400 feet of elevation gain. The charcoal kilns were neat to check out: pinyon pine on the nearby slopes were stripped and burnt to charcoal in these ten beehive-shaped ovens in the late 19th century to fuel smelters at silver mines across Panamint Valley owned by George Hearst, the successful San Francisco mining magnate and father of William Randolph Hearst. From these charcoal kilns, I followed the gravel road uphill, ascending about 1200 feet in 1.5 miles as I passed the Thorndike Campground and ascended to the crest of the Panamint Range. This road walk was actually one of the steeper portions of the hike! The road followed a canyon before making a switchback near its end and arriving at Mahogany Flat Campground, which lay at a wide part on the ridge crest of the Panamints at 8150 feet.

Wildrose Charcoal Kilns
At the entrance to the campground, I made a right turn onto the road leading to Rogers Peak and quickly came to the official trailhead for Telescope Peak on the left side of the road. The sign here suggests that it is 7 miles each way to Telescope Peak but thankfully, it's slightly shorter, closer to 6.2 miles each way from Mahogany Flat. I started out on the trail, which headed south along the eastern slopes of Rogers Peak through slopes of pinyon pine. There were frequent clearings in the sparse tree cover that opened out for amazing views of Death Valley and the Basin and Range peaks to the east, including Charleston Peak in the Spring Mountains near Las Vegas. The trail climbed moderately but steadily for the first mile as it followed the side of the mountain to the south, maintaining the same general views.

Morning light on Death Valley, viewed from the Panamints
At just over a mile into the hike, the trail wrapped around the southeast ridge of Rogers Peak and a whole new set of views opened up. All of Death Valley was visible to the south and ahead of me rose the lofty, soaring summit of Telescope Peak. At 11,043 feet, Telescope Peak is far from being the tallest peak in California or even in the Basin and Range, but it rises directly from Badwater, a height differential of over 11,300 feet in just a few short miles. In the contiguous United States, only Mount Rainier can boast a similar rise in such a short distance. This spot on the southeast ridge was the perfect spot to study the mountain's precipituous rise from the below sea level depths of Death Valley. Snow covered much of the northern facing upper slopes of the mountain.

Mighty Telescope Peak
After rounding the southeast ridge, the trail turned west and continued ascending steadily for just over a mile as it cut across the south slopes of Rogers Peak, aiming for the saddle between Rogers and Bennett Peaks on the crest of the Panamint Range. The trail was narrow at times here and the slopes of Rogers Peak were quite steep; while it was not an issue during my hike, I could see this stretch of trail being a bit more problematic if covered in snow. The tree cover thinned even more, providing constant views from this stretch of the trail straight down into Hanaupah Canyon, where the wash at the bottom of the canyon was 4000 vertical feet below me.

After 2.2 miles, the trail leveled out as it came to Arcane Meadows at the saddle between Rogers and Bennett Peak. As I crossed the grassy saddle, the first views to the west opened up. What a view it was! Panamint Valley lay below me, the desert flats of its valley floor over 8000 vertical feet below me at just 1000 feet above sea level. Sand dunes- massive in person, but small from this angle- filled the northern end of the valley. Beyond Panamint Valley rose the Argus Range and the Inyo Mountains, and beyond that rose the great granite wall of the Sierra Nevada. The Sierra formed an already impressive wall as it rose gradually from the south before coming to massive Olancha Peak; heading north from there, the range became only greater, breaking the 14000 barrier with Mount Langley before culminating in a row of pinnacles topped by Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the United States outside Alaska. To the north of that, the range maintained its height as it boasted a long line of soaring peaks, including Mount Williamson and the Palisades.

Sierra Nevada, Inyo Mountains, and the Panamint Dunes
Panamint Valley
I got to enjoy more of this view over the next mile of hiking. Leaving the saddle, the trail descended slightly as it headed south along the Panamint crest and wrapped around the western side of Bennett Peak. The hiking was generally flat here as the trail contoured around the peak, with more views to the southwest opening up as the trail rounded Bennett Peak's west ridge. Beyond the southern end of Panamint Valley lay Searles Dry Lake, where I could spot the coal-fired power plant and borax and potash mining operations at Trona. Beyond that lay the many mountain ranges of the Mojave Desert north of the Garlock Fault and on the horizon rose the massive peaks of the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges: Mount San Antonio (Mount Baldy) in the San Gabriels, Mount San Gorgonio in the San Bernardinos, and Mount San Jacinto in the San Jacinto Range. Each of the peaks of the Three Saints exceeded 10000 feet in sea level and each rises from the low-lying coastal area around the Los Angeles Basin.

Searles Dry Lake and the Mojave Desert, the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges in the distance
As I wrapped around to the southwest side of Bennett Peak, Telescope Peak returned to the view to the south. From this perspective, the rest of the route became clear: there was a bit more flat hiking to reach the saddle between Bennett and Telescope Peak and from there, an ascent along Telescope Peak's north ridge would bring me to the summit. At 1.6 miles past the Rogers Peak-Bennett Peak saddle and 3.8 miles from the trailhead, I reached the saddle between Bennett Peak and Telescope Peak. This saddle was 150 feet in elevation lower than the previous saddle, meaning there's a slight ascent on the return trip. From here, there was a final 2.4 mile stretch to the summit covering about 1550 feet of elevation gain.

Approaching Telescope Peak
This last stretch of trail delivered continuously stunning views of Death Valley and the Basin and Range. The upper slopes of Telescope Peak host a grove of limber pines and bristlecone pines, ancient trees with gnarled trunks that form spectacular shapes. These trees formed beautiful subjects to backdrops of fading ridges of the Basin and Range.

Death Valley and the Basin and Range
The final ascent up Telescope Peak began fairly gently, with the trail ascending at a steady but moderate grade along the eastern side of the north ridge. Views of Death Valley were complemented by views of Rogers and Bennett Peaks, the two mountains which I had just hiked around, to the north.

Bennett and Rogers Peak
As afternoon lighting began illuminating the Black Mountains to the east across Badwater, the remarkable colors of the northern Black Mountains began to pop, delivering views of Death Valley that were to die for. Mount Perry displayed hues of brown and red while to its north bands of yellow and pink cut across the range, with occasional pops of unearthly greens around Artists Palette and brightly colored golden badlands around Zabreskie Point. Behind the Black Mountains, the intensely banded peaks of the Funeral Mountains were also quite colorful.

Black Mountains and Badwater
The final mile of the hike consisted of steep switchbacks cut into north ride of Telescope Peak as the trail ascended through the final thousand feet to reach the summit. Here, high above the rest of the Panamint Range and growing higher than any other tree was a grove of Great Basin bristlecone pines. This species is endemic to the Great Basin in the United States, with Telescope Peak representing the far southwest corner of this tree's range. Usually growing only in the harshest alpine conditions, bristlecone pines are the oldest known non-clonal trees on the planet. In the Snake Range of Nevada and California's White Mountains, these trees reach up to 5000 years old. While the bristlecone pines at Telescope Peak were not quite as gnarled and ancient-looking as the ones I've seen in those two more famous bristlecone pine forests, they still exhibited the characteristic twisted, wizened trunks of bristlecones. The juxtaposition was striking: these symbols of longevity rose from Telescope's snowy slopes, with the hottest and driest spot in the country, a landscape that supports so little life that early visitors saw it as an unsurvivable hellscape, just miles away and below.

Bristlecone pine, Badwater, and Charleston Peak
Looking over two miles down into Death Valley
Bristlecone pines of Telescope Peak
The numerous switchbacks of the final ascent ended up being challenging for me as I started feeling the effects of being at high altitude. Still, I pushed on and soon enough I arrived at the top of the false summit that I had gazed up at for quite some time. The trail leveled out upon reaching the false summit, with just a final fifth of a mile of hiking along a high ridge to reach the summit. Views stretched in all direction and bristlecone pines lined the slopes on both sides of the peak, making this a stunning approach to the final climactic view at the summit.

Approaching the summit
A final, short uphill push brought me to the highest point in Death Valley National Park. The surrounding 360-degree view was astonishing, perhaps the most incredible view in the entire Great Basin. The view encomapssed everything I had seen along the way but now added on the complete southern half of the Panamint Range: as Telescope Peak towers over the rest of the range, I could see the range's many peaks rising one after the other to the south until they faded away to the desert. The endless layers of parallel ridges and ranges to the south was soul-stirring and indescribably beautiful. To the west, the Great Western Divide's snowcapped granite peaks were now visible beyond the peaks of the Sierra Crest between Mount Langley and Olancha Peak. The ridges and badlands of the Panamint and Argus Ranges illustrated the incredible erosive power of water in one way, while the broad alluvial fans on the Panamints' eastern slopes illustrated the same processes in a different way. I read somewhere that the peak is so named because a better view couldn't be had with a telescope: I couldn't agree more.

Panamint Valley and the Sierra Nevada from Telescope Peak
Telescope Peak and Death Valley are both part of the Great Basin, which is the nation's largest endorheic watershed, and the Basin and Range, a physiographic province characterized by the parallel sets of valleys and mountain ranges that filled my view at Telescope Peak. Precipitation falling in the Great Basin never flows to the sea, instead evaporating from desert basins. Rainfall here is scarce as the region is in the rain shadow of the mighty Sierra Nevada; most precipitation falls as snow on the mountain ranges separating the many basins. Such a dry climate was necessary for the formation of Badwater Basin, which can sustain dry land nearly three hundred feet below sea level as there is never enough precipitation here to support a permanent body of water in the basin. 

Badwater Basin and the hundreds of other basins that form the Great Basin in eastern California, Nevada, and Utah are a result of crustal extension processes that created the Basin and Range. The Rocky Mountains were formed by the low-angle subduction of the Farallon Plate beneath the North American Plate; by a few million years ago, much of the Farallon Plate along what is now the US West Coast had fully subducted beneath the North American Plate, save the Juan de Fuca Plate in the Pacific Northwest, which is a remnant of the Farallon Plate. The new boundary between the North America and the Pacific Plate was a transform boundary: the strike-slip San Andreas Fault. This relief in pressure on the continental plate caused the crust to relax and extend, pulling apart the crust apart at many faults to create many parallel north-south mountain ranges, each separated by deep basins that filled with depositional sediments. This became the Basin and Range.

Looking south along the crest of the Panamint Range
Telescope Peak is one of just 57 ultraprominent summits in the contiguous United States, meaning that it has a topographic prominence of over 5000 feet. The view from its summit encompasses numerous other ultraprominent peaks: Hayford Peak, Charleston Peak, White Mountain Peak, Mount Whitney, Mount San Gorgonio, Mount San Jacinto, and Mount Baldy.

I spent nearly two hours at the summit enjoying these tremendous views before retracing my steps along the trail to the Mahogany Flat Trailhead and then back down the road to my parked car at the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns.

Charleston Peak above Death Valley
If hiking Telescope Peak in winter, timing is quite important during limited daylight hours. I started my hike at sunrise during my November visit and got back to my car at the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns just 20 minutes before sunset.

On a sunny, beautiful November weekend day with little wind, I encountered perhaps 25 other hikers on the trail. This trail may be more popular during summer and over the holidays, but overall the trail didn't feel too crowded considering that I was in a national park and the destination was so excellent. This is one of America's most spectacular hikes. Don't miss it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Kearsarge Pass

Kearsarge Lakes and the High Sierra
9 miles round trip, 2600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

The view of imposing, snowcapped granite spires and pinnacles and deep blue lakes from Kearsarge Pass is one of the most striking scenes of California's High Sierra. This high mountain pass, on the crest of the Sierra Nevada and on the boundary of Kings Canyon National Park with Inyo National Forest, has views usually reserved for intense backcountry hikes but can actually be accessed with relative ease. The hike to reach this high pass in the Eastern Sierra travels up scenic Onion Valley under the shadow of massive University Peak and passes numerous sparkling alpine lakes. This is an excellent hike and a good way for visitors to the Eastern Sierra to catch a glimpse of the vast wilderness of Kings Canyon National Park on a day hike.

The hike up Onion Valley can be easily adjusted to fit different schedules and levels of fitness: hikers looking for a shorter and less strenuous journey can opt for a 4.5 mile round trip hike to Gilbert Lake with 1200 feet of elevation gain, while backpackers and extremely fit day hikers can use Kearsarge Pass as an access point for the vast Kings Canyon backcountry. The entire hike is at a high elevation, with Kearsarge Pass itself at nearly 11,800 feet, so hikers should be prepared for potential altitude sickness.

I hiked Kearsarge Pass during a November trip to Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra. I was initially unsure whether I'd be able to do this hike at all at such a late point in the year: although Onion Valley Road was still open to the trailhead, the first snowstorm of the season had swept through and I came with the expectation that snow might force me to turn back at some point on the hike. Luckily, I was able to make it all the way up the pass with microspikes; however, in most years, this hike becomes inaccessible by late October. 

The Onion Valley Trailhead is far from any major metropolitan area- hikers from Las Vegas, the Bay Area, or Los Angeles will have to drive hours to reach the Eastern Sierra. The closest town to Onion Valley is Independence, in Owens Valley just east of Kearsarge Pass. To reach Kearsarge Pass from Independence, I took the Onion Valley Road west and followed it uphill through many switchbacks to its end at the Onion Valley Trailhead. The drive up featured excellent views of Owens Valley and the soaring ramparts of the Eastern Sierra, including towering Mount Williamson, California's second tallest peak. White Mountain Peak, the third tallest mountain in the state, was also visible on the drive up on the opposite side of Owens Valley. During my return down this road, I spotted a set of well-formed lenticular clouds piling up on the leeward side of the Sierra Nevada.

Lenticular clouds over Owens Valley
From the hiker trailhead, the Onion Valley Trail made a long initial switchback to join up with the stock trail, passing a junction with the Golden Trout Lake Trail at the second switchback about a third of a mile into the hike. The grade of the trail was quite steady: the trail was well built and the elevation gain was generally fairly evenly-distributed over the course of the hike. The terrain around the trail was rocky and fairly open, with sparse tree cover at this elevation and on this side of the Sierra Crest. Continuing the moderate uphill along the trail, I entered the John Muir Wilderness at three-quarters of a mile. From here, the trail embarked on a set of switchbacks, from which I had nice views out into Owens Valley while also approaching the stream banks of Independence Creek. At 1.5 miles from and 800 feet above the trailhead, I emerged into the basin holding Little Pothole Lake, which had frozen by this point in the season. The granite ramparts of University Peak- a summit that would dominate the views on this hike- rose behind the lake.

Little Pothole Lake
The switchback ascent continued after Little Pothole Lake, the trail climbing moderately but relentlessly. Here, I started encountering more snow and ice on the trail during my November hike and I donned my microspikes for traction. The trail climbed another 400 feet from Little Pothole Lake before entering a large talus field. Here, the ascent started to level off as I was treated to excellent views of the mountain amphitheater at the head of Onion Valley. Looking back to the east, I also had a great view into the desert plains of Owens Valley, with the treeless Inyo Mountains rising across the valley marking the transition from the Sierra Nevada to the Basin and Range.

Looking down Onion Valley to Independence, Owens Valley, and the Inyo Mountains
The talus slope ended as I arrived on the shores of Gilbert Lake, about 2.2 miles from the trailhead. The trail skirted the north shore of the lake and I had incredible views of massive University Peak rising to the south above the lake. The lake itself had frozen, although the ice in center of the lake was not particularly thick yet and displayed numerous delicate cracks. On the day of my visit, the handful of other hikers on the trail turned around here as most had not brought traction devices to deal with the snow further up the trail. Gilbert Lake was very pretty and would have made for a satisfying standalone day hike.

University Peak rises above Gilbert Lake
At the west end of Gilbert Lake, the trail passed a massive rock with a pretty view of Independence Peak and University Peak rising over the lake, with a peek of the distant Inyo Mountains. This was a pretty scene and any hikers to Gilbert Lake should at least make it out this far.

Independence Peak over Gilbert Lake
Leaving Gilbert Lake, the trail reentered a sparse forest and made a short, gentle ascent to arrive at the junction with a spur trail to Matlock Lake. I ignored this spur trail and continued forward on the main trail, but I kept my eyes peeled for a social path to the left of the main trail just past this junction that led to Flower Lake. Flower Lake was a short distance from the main trail but was worth the brief detour to visit; it was not as spectacular as Gilbert Lake but still had a pretty setting at the foot of a tall granite peak, surrounded by forest. During my visit, the lake was frozen solid. At 2.5 miles from the trailhead, this could also make for a nice day hike destination.

Frozen Flower Lake
The trail resumed the moderate but steady climb after passing Flower Lake. After a few switchbacks through the forest, the trail emerged on rockier, more open slopes. After traversing the side of a small, rocky basin, the trail emerged onto a ridge above Heart Lake about 3.3 miles from the trailhead. Nestled beneath soaring granite walls far below the trail, Heart Lake was a striking scene, one of the most wild and beautiful views on the hike to that point. Its dark, deep blue waters remained unfrozen well into November, even as its shores were coated in snow.

Heart Lake
As the trail embarked on another switchback ascent above Heart Lake, views from the trail continued to widen. Gilbert Lake and Flower Lake became visible back down Onion Valley. This set of switchbacks ended as the trail entered the highest of the many small basins in Onion Valley. Here, massive Mount Gould rose ahead and Kearsarge Pass itself, a high saddle on the jagged crest of the Sierra, finally came into view. I could see the final stretch of trail, which cut across the slopes of Mount Gould to reach the pass. I passed the last few stunted trees around the trail as I emerged into the barren alpine world above the timberline.

Looking past Gilbert Lake out Onion Valley
Mount Gould
As I started this final ascent to Kearsarge Pass, Big Pothole Lake appeared in the high basin to the south. Big Pothole Lake was the most dramatic of the five lakes that I saw in Onion Valley: its nearly perfectly round form was set in a rugged granite bowl, with soaring granite peaks rising directly behind it. Although at a high elevation, Pothole Lake had not yet become fully frozen.

Big Pothole Lake
The trail made a long final switchback on the last stretch of the ascent, which crossed rocky terrain on Mount Gould's slopes. As I approached the pass, a number of jagged peaks began to appear to the west on the other side of the pass, joining the views of University Peak that I had enjoyed for the past few hours.

University Peak rises above Big Pothole Lake
At last I arrived at Kearsarge Pass, 11,760 feet above sea level. I was welcomed by a sign informing me of my arrival at Kings Canyon National Park and by blasts of tropical storm-force winds that were blowing over the crest of the Sierra Nevada. Challenging the wind and taking a few ginger steps onto the Kings Canyon side of the pass, I found a spectacular alpine landscape of snow, granite, and lakes laid before me. Just below the pass lay the Kearsarge Lakes, a series of treeline lakes in varying states of freezing, at the foot of a row of granite spires known as the Kearsarge Pinnacles. Further to the west was the lower elevation Bullfrog Lake. Behind the Kearsarge Pinnacles rose the great granite pyramids of Mount Brewer, North Guard Peak, and Mount Farquhar, which are the northernmost summits of the Great Western Divide. To the south, the wildest part of the view encompassed the Kings-Kern Divide, a fearsome wall of granite spires that included Mount Ericsson and Mount Stanford. As I could also see Big Pothole Lake and Matlock Lake on the other side of the Sierra Crest in Onion Valley, there were no fewer than seven lakes in my view from the pass. This was an extraordinarily grand view and an incredible reward for a reasonably moderate day hike.

View to Kearsarge Lakes and Kings Canyon National Park from Kearsarge Pass
Big Pothole Lake from Kearsarge Pass
From Kearsarge Pass, it is about another 16 miles of hiking to reach Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. At just over 20 miles hiking from Onion Valley to Cedar Grove, this is the shortest trailhead-to-trailhead crossing over the High Sierra. In fact, Kearsarge Pass was once the intended route for California Highway 180 to cross the Sierra Nevada and Onion Valley Road was once signed as the eastern stretch of Highway 180. However, the establishment of the John Muir Wilderness and the Ansel Adams Wilderness ended plans to extend roads over the Sierra Nevada both here and further north at Minaret Summit, leaving us today with one of the largest stretches of wilderness in the contiguous United States.

The name Kearsarge is actually derived from a name that the native Pennacook people of what is now New Hampshire bestowed upon a mountain in that state: a successful Union Navy ship in the Civil War was named Kearsarge after the New Hampshire peak, which in turn was the namesake of an Eastern Sierra mine and this alpine pass.

Mount Ericsson rising amidst the granite crags of the High Sierra
Kearsarge Pinnacles
I saw just a handful of other hikers on the trail on a November weekday, but you should expect Onion Valley to be quite popular on a summer weekend. The scenic delights of this hike are no secret and plenty of day hikers and backpackers alike head up this trail to access the stunning High Sierra when the snow has melted and the weather is nice. I can confirm that this hike deserves every ounce of attention it receives: Kearsarge Pass is a stunning spot that is worth putting up with crowds.